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The Righteous Ones

I was a bit too glib writing about the “myth of the Righteous Person.” Let me walk that back and say that there is such a thing as a Righteous Person: someone who stands up for trans people not because they want to get invited to the Queer Students’ Party, and not because they worry they might be mistaken for a “tranny” some day, but because they believe we are people who deserve respect and fair treatment. Those are the best kinds of allies, the ones who do it out of a heartfelt commitment.

I call them Righteous People based on three concepts from Jewish philosophy: the Righteous Ones, the Righteous Gentiles and the Righteous Among the Nations. The Righteous Among the Nations is an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked “life, liberty or position” to protect Jews during the Nazi holocaust. It specifically excludes anyone who acted for personal gain.

The Righteous Among Nations is said to be based on an earlier notion of the Righteous Gentile, one who is not Jewish but lives among Jews and follows the laws of the community, as shown in the common Hebrew word chasid, which is translated as “righteous,” but also sometimes as “pious.” This is the same word that is used for Hasidic Jews, people who define themselves by a greater adherence to Jewish law than assimilated European and American Jews.

There is another word, tzadik, that is translated as “righteous.” In the words of Maimonides, “One whose merit surpasses his iniquity is a tzadik.” This word comes down to us in the names of Neil Sedaka and Janette Sadik-Khan, who are both apparently descended from Righteous Ones.

I mention these distinctions because I think the concepts are also reflected in our concept of “ally.” There is the brother in arms, who is like the Allied Powers, fighting a common enemy. There is the ally of the hearth, who comes to meetings and parties, and makes an effort to get all the pronouns and terminology right. They are like the Pious Gentile, the one who is not one of us but lives among us and follows our laws. Then there are the ones like the employees of the Maryland McDonald’s who tried to defend Chrissy Lee Polis from her attackers, with no motivation but human decency. Those are the Righteous Ones.

The key is that a Pious One is not necessarily a Righteous One. Just as importantly, a Righteous One is not necessarily a Pious One. This is why we need to be careful which kind of ally we are talking about when we use the word.

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